The bitter truth about sugar
Recently an American doctor called Robert Lustig has been calling for laws that restrict sugar as if it were alcohol or tobacco. Like many people, I suspect, my initial reaction upon hearing this was: give me a break. Lustig, who thinks sugar is a dangerous poison, has considered several strategies. For instance, we could double the price of fizzy drinks, so children can’t afford them. We could get sweet shops to close in the afternoons, when children are going home from school. We could restrict the advertising of foods with added sugar.
We could even set an age limit for fizzy drinks, possibly 17, so younger kids can’t buy cans of Coke.
Dear me. Whatever next? It’s easy to understand the reasons for controlling tobacco and alcohol — these things are toxic and costly for everyone. If you smoke or get drunk, I end up paying your hospital bills; if you don’t smoke or drink, I pay less tax. So of course alcohol and tobacco should be restricted. Tobacco causes an array of diseases; alcohol can destroy your liver, and it also makes people shout and fight and vomit in the street. Both are addictive.
But sugar? The stuff you sprinkle on your cereal? That makes cakes and chocolate taste nice? My first thought was: yes, I know it’s bad for you. Yes, it rots your teeth — if you don’t clean them afterwards. Yes, if you eat too much, you get fat. Yes, it can tinker with your metabolism, so when you eat sugar, you crave more. And I know first-hand about the phenomenon of the sugar high — I have a six-year-old son.
But surely it should be up to us how much sugar we eat. We don’t want the sugar police, do we? Even as I was thinking this, I realised something slightly alarming: part of me doesn’t want to hear really, seriously bad news about sugar. I have enough to worry about. I’d like to remain in mild denial, thank you. Sugar is part of life. It’s pleasant. It’s everywhere. Poison, schmoison. Who is this Robert Lustig, anyway?
He’s a professor of clinical paediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and an expert on childhood obesity.
Scientifically, Lustig is an endocrinologist. His area of expertise is human metabolism — how our bodies break down food and turn it into energy. Some of his lectures are on YouTube. Recently, he’s gone viral. This middle-aged, grey-haired, slightly stocky guy, who wears a suit and tie and talks about the metabolism of fructose, has had more than two million hits.
In the lectures, Lustig is mesmerising. He tells us more or less the same story he’s outlined in a recent issue of the journal Nature. “The UN Secretary General,” he says, “declared that non-communicable disease — that is, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease — is a bigger threat to the entire world, developed and developing, than is infectious disease.”
He tells us that these diseases kill 35 million people every year. He says that there are 30 per cent more obese people in the world than undernourished people. In 2011, there were 366 million diabetics in the world — more than double the number in 1980, and 5 per cent of the population. In the US, by 2030 this figure might be as high as 33 per cent.
At this point, he had my attention. Remember when almost nobody had diabetes? That wasn’t long ago. These days, many of us know somebody with the disease. And what about high blood pressure, heart disease, fatty liver, and chronic fatigue? What about depression, food cravings, addictive overeating? Think about all the people we walk past every day who are really, really fat. Not just plump but off-the-scale fat. Within living memory, these people were rare.
Now you see them every day. And it’s not necessarily their fault…..
The Telegraph: Read the full article
Hear Dr Robert Lustig’s lecture, “Sugar, the bitter truth”, on YouTube: he’s an outstanding presenter!
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